He was a paunchy, middle-aged white guy with an okay voice and a smile, and for a few years he was the biggest star in the world. Upon his death I’m flipping through decades of media coverage of his amazing career. A profile in 1980: “Kenny Rogers is a Middle American father figure. In his silver mane, glistening grey beard and wide girth, he’s a congenial Santa Claus, always ready with a smile and a supportive nod of approval.”
Rocking a dadbod and having a blast, sometimes dressing up in cowboy drag for fun, Kenny Rogers came along at a tough moment: when the Baby Boomers were starting to get old. They’d said they’d rather ‘die young than fade away’, but he helped you over the hump.
He was the silver daddy we didn’t know we needed—but really did.
Looking over his life, I realize he was contributing a lot of new ideas about how to be alive, and he had to learn them all on his own. “Like most men of his day, he was pretty shut down,” he writes of his father in his 2012 memoir, Luck or Something Like It. His father was a drunk, his mother was the strong one, too strong maybe. “I never saw her actually hit him, but she was wielding a twelve-inch skillet.”
Though note a 2017 interview: “I saw her hit him with a skillet one time, but I think he deserved it.”
As a young man, Rogers says he was highly-charged sexually. He talks about himself as being “girl crazy” from a young age, but there are curious themes. He writes of an early crush: “I was totally mesmerized by her shoes.”
He was surprised when an early girlfriend got pregnant, since “I had always stopped before consummating the act.” Married at the insistence of the girl’s parents, he found it suited him. “When I got married, I thought that having a wife just meant a guy could have sex anytime he happened to think about it, which in my case was all the time.”
Before long, the girl’s parents had taken her back, refusing contact, in hopes of their daughter getting a real husband, not some footloose musician. Rogers notes his long inability to be all that emotionally available. “I have said this often: music, at least for me, is like a mistress, and she’s a difficult mistress for a wife to compete with.”
He was a notable figure in the sexual revolution even by the late 1960s, when his early band, the First Edition, debuted “Something’s Burning,” to become a minor hit in 1970. It was X-rated for the time:
You lie in gentle sleep beside me.
I hear your warm and rhythmic breathing.
I take your hand and hold it tightly.
Listen, can you not hear our young hearts beating?
He was a new kind of lover—considerate and sensual—and it took years for he and the Pop Culture to figure each other out.
His music career, crossing many genres, actually seemed like it might be shutting down by the mid-70s. He was working a fading act in a Vegas lounge—when Elvis came to see him.
In his memoir, Rogers writes: “He told me he would slip into the back of the lounge and watch our show after his and said how much he really enjoyed the group. It was a thrill but a hard moment to get past for me. Here was Elvis Presley telling me how much he enjoyed the show, and I hadn’t been to see his yet. He invited me to come see him the next night. Needless to say I was thrilled, and needless to say I did. Every time I went to see him he would always introduce me as ‘his friend’ and invite me to come backstage after the show.”
After Elvis died, his last girlfriend tells Rogers that Elvis’ favorite song had been Rogers’ “Sweet Music Man,” a song sung to a fading superstar which can seem like a portrait of Elvis. It’s striking to think of the male affection that Rogers later broadcasts emanates from Elvis, in his dying days, showing an interest in him—a demonstration that men can be kind to each other.
Rogers is often compared to Elvis in early coverage, but it isn’t until Elvis dies that the comparison looks plausible. In a 1976 appearance on Dolly Parton’s T.V. show, Rogers is a messy hippie who looks like a turquoise Furby. He seems to have saved his career by re-framing himself as an Elvis-like figure who could age with grace.
Passing the torch from one man to another is one of the themes he finds in “The Gambler,” written by a 22-year-old Don Schlitz, and covered twice by the time Rogers spotted it. A 1978 local paper in Nashville notices the song in an earlier stage. “It took me about 10 minutes to write it,” Schlitz says, “although I had the idea in my head for some time.”
The first cover, by Bobby Bare, is barely listenable—lacking the quiet storytelling force that Rogers brought. The ‘Gambler’, before dying, teaches card-playing to the naive young narrator. But the famous words are really fatherly advice to a boy.
You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em
Know when to fold ‘em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run
The core of Rogers’ artistry will be the idea of a man being helpful to other men. His concerts will create a space without male competition. “I’m not a threat to men, like Elvis was,” he says in a 1980 profile. “I’m 41 years old, with gray hair and 20 pounds more than I need. Men can’t wait to bring their wives to see me!”
To his original audiences, his sexual energy was both invigorating and calming in a new way that was hard to analyze. That women scream in excitement at his concerts, a 1986 profile notes, seems “especially surprising, since Rogers has always had a squeaky-clean, sexless image.” Far from coming to worship his sex appeal, it was a space of good-feeling and communication between the sexes. A 1988 concert review notes: “Rogers has the ability to touch his audiences. One couple reported they even reconsidered a decision to get a divorce after hearing Rogers in concert.”
He becomes a bridge across that great chasm between male and female. A line he often uses, as in his book, is that his songs express what “every man would like to say and what every woman would like to hear.”
With frequent remarks about his voice being weak for a performer of his stature, he’d often be dressed down—“a minimally talented artist . . . who is really just a Barry Manilow in sheep’s clothing.” He comments himself on his modest gifts as a singer. But what the world needed, after the sex-drenched 1970s, was a bit of kindness, good feeling, communication, and a dose of acceptance of mortality.
A critic in 1983 notes he “holds a position in the music industry usually reserved for stars like Elvis Presley.” Though it was “like having your father sing these songs: a safe man singing safe music.”
‘Safe’ was being read as ‘bad’, but then you realize how nice it can be.
There is a vagueness or femininity about him. Note the opening lines of “Islands in the Stream,” written for him in 1982 by the Bee Gees.
I was soft inside
There was something going on
In his memoir he recalls the song’s difficult birth. Barry Gibb was producing, but Rogers couldn’t get a sense of the song. “I finally told him I didn’t even like the song anymore. Pondering this for a split second, Barry had an epiphany. Without breaking stride he raised one finger in the air and said, ‘What we need is Dolly Parton.’”
She happened to be in L.A., and—known for quick decisions—she was in the studio 45 minutes later. In life as in the song, she brought the energy. “I’ve lived through earthquakes in California, twisters in Kansas, and hurricanes in Georgia, but nothing prepared me for working with Dolly,” he writes in his memoir. “I was sure I could hold my own, but quickly learned, when Dolly comes marching out onstage, I don’t care who you are, you might as well stand back.”
The music critic Holly Kruse recalls the song being a staple in gay clubs. “It may be hard to understand the attraction for a gay male audience of what on the surface appears to be a standard heterosexual romantic pop duet, but one can imagine how the lyrical theme of love triumphing over isolation (and the good-natured, self-conscious campiness of an artist like Parton) would have an appeal for individuals in this audience.”
But really I think it’s the whirling androgyny in the song. The lyrics have no gendered terms. In alternating leads, Rogers recalls being “soft inside” — as the female comes along to liven him up. Each are emotional, each hurt, each committed to not abusing the other.
No more will you cry
Baby, I will hurt you never
We start and end as one
In love forever
We can ride it together, ah ha
Making love with each other, ah ha
In Dolly Parton, Gender and Country Music, Leigh H. Edwards notes that, the way it played out in onstage performances, Parton seemed the aggressor: “They were choreographed to walk around opposite sides of the circular stage and meet in the middle, but she would stalk the stage so quickly that she would overtake him.”
And indeed it feels as if Parton takes over the song—which is currently available only on her releases, missing from Rogers’ anthologies. The iTunes release of his original album, Eyes that See in the Dark (1983), even omits it, leaving only a few forgettable tracks of country disco, with Rogers sounding oddly like a member of the Bee Gees.
Were there anxieties about Rogers being too feminine? A 1999 retrospective notes that “during the early ’80s, an urban legend spread through the nation’s high schools that Rogers secretly had breast-reduction surgery in Switzerland.”
As they’d become regular co-stars over the next decades, audiences wanted to see Rogers and Parton as a romantic couple. He isn’t going to burst anyone’s bubble, but doesn’t linger long on the relationship. “I’ve known Dolly for the better part of forty years, and I have yet to see her when she hasn’t been all dolled up,” he writes.
“You can’t really review a Kenny Rogers show so much as give it a consumer report,” notes a 1989 review. He did a series of Gambler Westerns on T.V., reviewed as a “non-actor Kenny Rogers.” He was a philanthropist, deeply involved in the “We Are the World” charity single in 1985. He had a restaurant chain (famously referenced in Seinfeld), and became an accomplished photographer.
But what he most needed to work on was himself.
“When I turned 50, I went through a serious midlife crisis,” he tells Rob Tannenbaum for Rolling Stone. His memoir is a poor guide here, as there’s a sense he couldn’t tell that story. There’s pieces in later profiles:
The bottom may have been 1993, when Kenny Rogers Roasters was smacked with a $10 million copyright lawsuit from a Florida restaurant chain and three Dallas women sued him for sexual harassment over phone-sex games. If that wasn’t tawdry enough, recordings of Rogers’s calls were aired on TV’s A Current Affair, and Rogers went on Larry King Live to defend himself.
He was both helped, and not, when he met a hostess at a restaurant, and decided to marry his fifth wife. “She was 26, and I was 50, maybe,” he says. He was 54, and older than her parents. But that’s life. “Our relationship is something special,” he says.
He pioneered in being a man experimenting with plastic surgery, not entirely successful. Saying it was an effort to look less like his wife’s grandfather, there’s a sense throughout his life of him never being, really, that comfortable with his sexual body. A 1982 profile finds him making a kid’s movie, Six Pack. The original script had a scene of him in bed. “I would have felt terribly uncomfortable doing that,” he says.
As there’s a sinking sense of him being, in later years, another victim of the sex-shaming he’d held off in the period of his superstardom. In the tabloid mind he’s another dirty old man, vainly trying to stay young. “Have you tried Viagra?” the Rolling Stone interviewer asks. “Oh, yeah,” he replies. “I love Viagra. I don’t need it, but I tried it. It’s a great legal drug.”
But nobody is ever enough of a ‘man’. And the messages he spread endure: to be sensual, to adjust to stronger women, to reach out to other men. As his central gospel was: You’re getting older, but life is happening! You can fix relationships, or go on to new ones. The sex can get better. Maybe you’re only just glimpsing how much you can feel. It’s time to find out.